This year he was among the pilots of 311 Squadron RAF in memoriam for heroism in combat and received a medal from President Petr Pavel.
And it was not only for his entire life story, but also for the daring stunt he performed with the said plane. In extremely poor visibility, he flew through clouds, avoided anti-aircraft gun fire, and dropped bombs on the ship, which were followed by an explosion and then a fire. The crew of more than seventy members of the German ship therefore had to abandon it and were captured.
“Having only two bombs in the bomb bay and hitting both of them under such adverse circumstances was a truly admirable feat,” noted historian Jiří Rajlich, author of the comprehensive publication Na nebi hrdého Albionu.
When the radio operator announced the result of their attack, the airmen of Doležal’s crew began to cheer. And they received the same enthusiastic reception after the eleven-hour flight.
“One of the most modest people in the entire unit, Second Lieutenant Oldřich Doležal and Captain Zdeněk Hanuš (Doležal’s navigator – note ed.), returned from intelligence interrogation and inconspicuously mingled among us in the officers’ dining room,” described radio telegrapher Miroslav Vild. “It was of no use to them. We pulled them into the center of the common room, put glasses in their hands and ordered drinks at their expense,” he added.
“Well, they started, so I got involved and that was it. And this Zdeneček threw it right down the chimney for them,” Doležal pointed to his partner sitting next to him. “She burned like a fagule,” Hanuš laughed.
Both were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the highest British award given to officers, for their action. Even the opponent appreciated the pilot’s skill. The captain of the ship called the pilot “a cunning old fox”.
From Bata to abroad and to the RAF
Oldřich Doležal was born in 1912 in Moravská Ostrava, but grew up in Vítová, today part of the town of Fryšták, not far from Zlín. He trained as a radio operator in the army, then worked for the Baťa company, where he traveled all over the world as an aviation radio operator.
And thanks to this, he got abroad from Czechoslovakia even before the occupation began in March 1939. A few days before, he flew to Poland on a business trip, and when he and his colleagues learned about the occupation of the country, they decided not to return home. He reached Canada via France and England, from where he headed back to England, where he joined the Czechoslovak foreign army.
Being “just” a telegraph operator was not enough for him, so he signed up for pilot training. He was assigned to the 311th Czechoslovak Bomber Squadron of the RAF, where he then served on anti-submarine missions over the Bay of Biscay and soon became an aircraft commander.
After the success of his life in the form of the sinking of a German merchant ship, he participated, among other things, in Operation Overlord and covered the successful Allied invasion of France from the sky. He served in the transport air force and returned home after the war. He left the army for civilian life and first worked as a chief pilot in Otrokovice and then became a captain at the revived Czechoslovak Airlines (ČSA).
But the advent of the communists was a turning point for him and hundreds of other “rabble-rousers”. “Ex-war pilots from Great Britain were highly suspicious of the new communist regime. Actually, they were just waiting until there were enough trained (and communist ideology) pilots at home to be able to replace them,” wrote publicist Luděk Navara in the book Příběhy železné opony.
They were not allowed to fly abroad and take their family members on board, so that they could not escape with them. But Doležal and his two friends, Josef Klesnil and Ladislav Světlík, have grown up with the regime. They met for two months and thoroughly prepared a secret plan. They were looking for the day when each of them would sit in the cockpit of their plane, change the prescribed course and fly with the passengers across the border. They would not be the first, other former members of the RAF have behaved similarly before.
The famous flight of the three Dakotas
But the biggest and most important coordinated escape with the help of transport planes was invented by the aforementioned trio. And what was important: everyone counted on the emigration of their own family and acquaintances, whom they put on the remaining planes of their friends. They invented cover stories for them, for example, Doležal’s wife Květa flew from Ostrava to Prague with her six-month-old son Tomáš under the pretext that she urgently needed to go to the hospital.
D-Day arrived on March 24, 1950, when three Dakotas took off at almost the same time from Ostrava, Brno and Bratislava, but then changed course and landed at the Erding military airfield near Munich instead of Prague. Klesnil and Světlík managed it without any problems, but Doležal’s flight was accompanied by complications.
He was late, so there was a risk that after the disappearance of the two Dakotas, the authorities would stop the third one still on the ground or force it to land. But finally he started. He reported a landing gear malfunction to Ruzyně, cut radio contact and prayed to fly safely through the Soviet occupation zone.
“There was a wonderful calmness on the plane, because a large group of Slovaks opened a demijohn of slivovice while still in Bratislava and shared sausages with the others, so no one noticed that the Czechoslovak Airlines airliner was flying suddenly surrounded by American fighter jets,” Navara quotes Doležal’s later statement.
Routes of the hijacked Dakota flights: blue arrows – OK-WAR flying from Brno, red OK-WDR from Ostrava, yellow OK-WDS from Bratislava.
Of the 85 passengers who unexpectedly reached the West, 27 remained abroad. “For conspiracy reasons, most of the passengers could not be informed about the planned escape. And that is also why many returned, because they did not want to emigrate without preparation and without their families. This is how the mother of figure skater Ája Vrzáňová Anna or the future wife of BBC editor Zdenek Mastník Helena Polívková came to the West,” noted historian Prokop Tomek in an article published on the website of the Military Historical Institute.
“This courageous action, the scope of which was unprecedented in the entire camp of peace and socialism at the time, caused on the one hand a wave of tremendous enthusiasm and admiration for the courage of the Western airmen who carried out the hijacking to Erding so generously and with such bravado, on the other hand it caused another wave of hatred of the regime at that time, not only towards former Westerners, but also towards every aviation worker who did not condemn the action,” said Rajlich.
In the same year, Jindřich Suchý published the propaganda book Kidnapping in Erding, and two years later, directors Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos made a similarly tuned and false film Kidnapping, in which the entire act is purposefully depicted as an American conspiracy and the airmen were labeled as criminals. The historical paradox is that Kadár himself emigrated to the USA in 1968…
All remaining RAF pilots soon ended up at Czechoslovak Airlines, and Doležal was sentenced in absentia to 25 years of hard prison. However, he understandably did not start serving the sentence. He settled in Great Britain, where he worked as a civil pilot.
“After that, however, he became seriously ill: he suffered from a loss of balance,” writes Rajlich. “This ailment was subsequently the cause of a severe injury, which left him paralyzed all over and confined to bed.”
He had to be treated for a long time in a hospital in Etchinghill, England. Oldřich Doležal also died there on November 28, 1983 at the age of 71. He is buried at the military cemetery of Czechoslovak RAF war veterans in Brookwood. He was rehabilitated in his homeland in 1997 and promoted to the rank of colonel in memoriam. A monument was unveiled at the site of his house in Vítová. Son Tom, who lives in England, also took part in the memorial event.